Her death was confirmed by her partner of 17 years and sole immediate survivor, George Parkington, who did not give a precise cause. She had been ailing and was recently released from the hospital, he said.
Tall and graceful, Ms. Kelly was once praised by director and choreographer Bob Fosse as “the best dancer I’ve ever seen,” according to Rose Eichenbaum’s book “The Dancer Within,” and began her career in the 1960s performing with the Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey and Donald McKayle dance companies.
She also toured with Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, twirled alongside Sammy Davis Jr. and Gene Kelly on dance specials and variety shows, acted in Broadway productions directed by improv guru Paul Sills and accompanied the UCLA marching band at the Academy Awards in 1969, performing a playful solo routine to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” that introduced her to millions of viewers nationwide.
“I suspect you are going to notice her — cool and angular and with legs as elegantly articulated as an aristocratic crane’s — wherever she turns up, this year or next,” New York Times theater critic Walter Kerr wrote in 1971, after Ms. Kelly starred in Sills’s adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” “Some performers are performers; a few are presences.”
Ms. Kelly made her Broadway debut in 1964 with the musical “Something More!” and, after being spotted at a Caesars Palace dance show in Las Vegas, was cast in the musical “Sweet Charity” on London’s West End, winning a British theater award for her supporting role as a ballroom dancer-for-hire.
Loosely inspired by Federico Fellini’s film “Nights of Cabiria,” “Sweet Charity” was adapted into a 1969 movie by Fosse, with Ms. Kelly appearing alongside Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera, dancing on a rooftop for “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and pursuing a client in the sultry number “Big Spender.”
“Never in my life had I seen such elegance, raw talent and breath taking honesty on screen,” filmmaker Lee Daniels wrote in a 2016 Time magazine article, recalling Ms. Kelly’s performance. “She is an unsung hero and the reason that I am here.”
“Sweet Charity” launched Ms. Kelly’s film career, leading to roles as a nurse in the science-fiction thriller “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) and a love interest in “Soylent Green” (1973), which imagined a dystopian future — 2022 — in which the world faced food shortages amid a climate catastrophe.
At a time when relatively few movie parts existed for African Americans, Ms. Kelly also starred in black-oriented films such as “Cool Breeze” (1972), a remake of “The Asphalt Jungle” starring Thalmus Rasulala, and “Trouble Man” (1972), featuring Robert Hooks and a soundtrack by Marvin Gaye.
Her other film roles included Dahomey Queen, a prostitute who becomes involved with a black revolutionary in the CIA movie “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” (1973); Leggy Peggy, the wife of a congressman in “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), an action comedy starring Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte; and Satin Doll, a stripper in “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling” (1986), Richard Pryor’s sole feature film as a director.
She also became a frequent TV guest star, appearing in programs such as “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Sanford and Son,” “Police Woman,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Kojak” and “Golden Girls.” In 1984, she played a villainous madam on the soap opera “Santa Barbara” and a public defender on the NBC sitcom “Night Court,” earning her first Emmy nomination but leaving the show after only one season.
She received another Emmy nomination for “The Women of Brewster Place,” a 1989 ABC miniseries that Oprah Winfrey’s production company adapted from a novel by Gloria Naylor. Set at a dilapidated housing project, the show was unusual in spotlighting the daily lives of black women on network television and featured Winfrey, as well as Cicely Tyson, Jackée Harry, Lynn Whitfield and Robin Givens.
Ms. Kelly played Theresa, who lived at Brewster Place with her partner Lorraine (Lonette McKee). The actors delivered “perhaps the most compelling and compassionate portrayals of lesbians on television,” wrote Boston Globe arts critic Ed Siegel; in 2019, the culture website Vulture said the show “cracked open the door to sympathetic portrayals of black gay women.”
“This was the first time to show black lesbians and love in particular, but also the way in which lesbians were shunned in black communities,” Imani M. Cheers, author of “The Evolution of Black Women in Television,” told Vulture. “At the very end, there’s a level of acceptance and appreciation for the couple that was powerful because we hadn’t had an opportunity to witness that on TV before.”
While the show allowed Ms. Kelly to demonstrate her dramatic range, she also brought a bit of levity. When her character noticed a gossipy neighbor spying on her through the window, she responded with indignation, “What? You want to see what I’m doing? . . . I’m making meatloaf, you old bat! Meatloaf! The way normal people make it!”
Taking aim at the “old bat,” Ms. Kelly threw chopped peppers, onions and a pair of eggs at her window. “Here’s something freaky for you,” she added, before tossing out a glass jar as well. “Olives. I put olives in my meatloaf. Run up and down the street and tell that!”
Paula Alma Kelly was born in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 21, 1942, and raised in Harlem. For years, news stories incorrectly reported her birth year as 1943; they also mistakenly said that her father was a jazz musician, according to Parkington, although it was unclear exactly what her parents did for a living.
“My mother said that I danced before I walked,” Ms. Kelly told Eichenbaum, recalling a childhood in which jazz music blared from open windows. She later told the New Pittsburgh Courier, “The only time I feel complete expression is when I’m dancing. Then I feel I have no problems, no worries, no hang-ups; I feel I could do anything in the world.”
Ms. Kelly studied at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan before enrolling at Juilliard. She took time off from school after her second year to make her professional debut on tour with Belafonte; according to school records, she left permanently in the spring of 1964 without receiving a degree.
Her theater career took off with Broadway productions including “The Dozens,” a 1969 comedy in which she starred alongside Al Freeman Jr. and Morgan Freeman. That same year, amid the boundary-breaking upheaval of the sexual revolution, she made headlines when she danced nude for full-frontal photos in Playboy magazine. (Rolling Stone called them “notably ‘artistic,’ suggestive of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.”)
Ms. Kelly later appeared in the Los Angeles production of “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” an African American musical revue by Micki Grant; helped choreograph a musical adaptation of “Peter Pan” for NBC in 1976 (she played Tiger Lily); and danced in the 1982 touring production of “Sophisticated Ladies,” a Duke Ellington revue.
In 1985, she married British film and television director Don Chaffey, who died in 1990. Nearly two decades later, she performed for the last time, in a Pasadena Playhouse production of Regina Taylor’s “Crowns.” Fittingly, she was Mother Shaw, a grandmother character that one critic called “a living link to the generations that have passed.”
“There was always this sort of élan about her dancing and her performance,” said her friend Ken Page, who acted alongside Ms. Kelly on the television series “South Central.” “Everything she did, including her stint in ‘Sophisticated Ladies,’ was like Josephine Baker come back to life. . . . To me she always had this inborn elegance. Some people strive for it, some people paint it on, but she really had it.”
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